Uncharacteristically, the Chicago Bulls didn’t match their opponent’s level of physicality on Thursday night when they suffered an 83-72 loss to the Miami Heat. The Bulls were punched in the mouth first and failed to retaliate the rest of the game.
It all started in the second quarter when James Jones shoved Bulls center Joakim Noah in the face, a play that warranted a flagrant foul-two, which is an automatic ejection. In the third quarter, Dwyane Wade delivered a forearm shiver to Rip Hamilton, sending the Bulls’ guard flying out of bounds, and then LeBron James blindsided and flattened John Lucas III with a hard pick in which the Heat’s star appeared to lower his shoulder.
In all, the Heat were assessed two flagrant fouls and one technical foul. After the game, the Bulls, players and coaches alike, understood they didn’t respond to Miami’s hard hits, which was also clear in the fact that the Heat outrebounded them 45-40 with Chris Bosh sidelined.
However, the Bulls bounced back Saturday evening as they pulled out a 93-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks, which trimmed their magic number to secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to one game.
In the third quarter, Hamilton was upset with a screen set by Dirk Nowitzki and took a swipe at the back of the Mavs star’s head. Hamilton was issued a technical foul, but fans likely endorsed the retaliation – a factor that was missing on Thursday.
Bulls point guard Mike James, a 10-year NBA veteran who has played in plenty of physical games throughout his career, knows Thursday’s tilt had the intensity of a playoff contest that was decided, in large part, by which team displayed the most toughness.
“That’s playoff basketball, and no one is going to give a championship to a team,” James told me in a phone interview on Friday night. “You’ve got to fight for a championship. The Miami Heat knows that if it comes down to it in the Eastern Conference, it may be us against them. It’s going to have to be more than just skill that’s going to win games. It’s going to have to be will and it’s going to be who’s going to hit the hardest and who has the most force.”
While the Bulls were lacking in the physicality department Thursday night, James is confident that the Heat’s hard hits resonated in the locker room and showed players that it will take more than just skill or talent to get past their Eastern Conference rival.
“[Thursday] night is probably good because we got an opportunity to really see how Miami really thinks that they’re going to beat us,” James said. “And that’s by trying to hit us and beat us up. So, we as a team have to step up. Not just talent-wise, but physically. We understand that and we really want to win the championship this year.”
James went through a lot of physical battles during the 2003-04 season when he was a reserve guard on the champion Detroit Pistons. Aside from the fact that he and Hamilton were members of that Pistons squad and are currently on the Bulls, James sees similarities between the two teams, starting with defense and the ability to go deep into the bench.
“Of all the defensive stats of this season, we are probably in the top in all categories. That’s something we prided ourselves with the Detroit Pistons, our defense,” he said. “We were on top in every category defensively. We understand that offense wins games, defense wins championships, and that’s always the perfect statement when you’re really trying to win.
“The same thing goes with our bench. Our bench is as deep as when were with the ‘04 Pistons. We were just as strong and just as good when the starters were out of the game. There were never any letdowns.”
With the postseason right around the corner, James believes the level of physicality is only going to increase, as teams jockey for positioning in the standings while other clubs look to send statements to potential playoff opponents.
“Now that the playoffs are getting closer and it’s crunch time, guys are really going to start getting more physical,” James said. “That just lets us know that we have to get more physical – especially if we’re really thinking about winning an NBA championship.
“That’s where we have to continue to grow and understand that if we want to win a championship, we’re really going to have to step up. Not just talent-wise, but physically. Coach [Tom Thibodeau] always make a statement: [We] can’t go around anyone; we have to go through them. This is just another test for us.”